Is It Worth Collecting Anime On VHS?
by Justin Sevakis,
I recently got into collecting records, and I feel like, although it's not as handy as digital music, there's small things about just the act of listening to them that I really enjoy. I wonder, if there's any feeling you get from watching anime the old fashioned way, like on VHS? Is it worth going back and collecting anime on VHS, do you think?
Used VHS anime releases might seem like a fun, inexpensive collectable. Looking on Amazon and eBay, used releases can be had quite cheaply! Except, if you look into it further, you find out that most releases only had an hour or so of material on them, and once you pay for separate shipping for each tape, it's not much of a bargain at all. The boxes don't even make good keepsakes, since they're usually flimsy cardboard, and are pretty beat up in most cases. (Former rental tapes often have boxes covered in stickers.) The only reason to collect anime on VHS these days is pure nostalgia.
I definitely appreciate the unique pleasure to be had in playing vinyl, but to be honest I never got that pleasure from VHS. (I got it from playing 16mm film, but finding anime prints on 16mm is not something that happens very often.) A well-cared for vinyl record can sound pretty great, especially if you have a good turntable. VHS, however, looks like absolute balls. Even in the 80s we knew VHS didn't look so hot. It's why a lot of us nerds ended up investing in LaserDisc. But on a modern, gorgeous 4K display? VHS is just hideous. After seeing the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer of, say, Wings of Honneamise, the very idea of going back to a VHS tape is something that makes me want to curl into the fetal position.
That said, there are little things about watching anime on VHS that I do miss. It has less to do with the format itself, and more with the quirky ways the American anime publishers would format the shows in English. They'd often try to re-create the logo for the show in English text with the primitive video technology of the day. They'd also creatively try to re-cut the ending, to try and shoehorn in the English credit roll, or maybe squish the ending animation into the corner of the screen. They'd painstakingly rewrite song subtitles to be "singable" in English. It was kind of adorable.
A lot of the reason for that was, back when anime was first becoming a thing in the US, there was a lot of concern that Americans would see Japanese text and completely tune out. (Americans were oddly easy to freak out with foreign languages back in those days.) As a result, companies releasing in the US would go to great pains to remove ALL signs of Japanese credits and captions -- often covering them up with black or gray boxes. Openings and endings would get chopped up and replaced with video still frames. Anything to avoid having Japanese text on screen.
I think my favorite formatting was applied by Media Blasters in their earliest days. For their initial handful of shows (which included an inordinate number of hentai OAVs like Advancer Tina, Orchid Emblem, and Balthus - Tia's Radiance), they actually went so far as to render an elaborate -- but choppy and awkward -- new 3D logo for each show. And don't get me started on their trailers, which were little more than amateurish AMVs cut to bizarre synthesizer music. It was all very surreal.
Actually, I have a soft spot in my heart for VHS-era anime trailers in general. Most of the companies could barely handle cutting together a low-effort AMV to the show's opening theme, but occasionally the publishers got ambitious. ADV's famous "Do It Now" trailer matched quick cuts of the company's latest releases to thumping electronic music, and it really got people excited back in the day. Urban Vision cut montages of their shows to edgy-sounding stock music (ranging from darkwave to thrash metal), only to end them abruptly with an announcer rasping a creepy release date: "Psycho Diver... August 26th." Of course, anime VHS releases would stay in stock for years, so putting release dates made the tape outdated almost immediately.
Speaking of crappy trailers, perhaps nobody made more, and worse ones than Manga Video. People remember their entertaining compilation trailer (set to KMFDM's still-amazing song, Ultra), but their VHS releases are chock-a-block with bad editing, awkward announcers that sound like British grandfathers, and bizarre phrases like "senses-shattering". (Manga Video's UK releases had even more silly ones that never made it to their Stateside tapes.)
And what could be more quaint than how AnimEigo used to end their VHS releases... with a text scroll of resources for budding anime fans? Among its suggestions were the to check out the anime and comics sections on pre-world-wide-web online services CompuServe and GEnie! It sounds laughable now, but I STILL have friends that I met on CompuServe's anime section.
So yes, anime on VHS offers a few surprises. Few of them are good, but some are lovably quirky and dated. However, is it worth suffering through poor subtitles, blurry images, crackling audio, and otherwise ruining your viewing experience? Probably not. Luckily there are a few fans capturing these weird moments of anime ephemera and putting them up on YouTube. If you're up late one night, I highly recommend you descend down that rabbit hole.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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